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Come, save the Ridleys


When a small group of people who care come together, great things happen. You too can be a part of this eco campaign.

Villagers gather to get the message in music and song.

A rather rickety van bumps its way into Kovalam village just off the East Coast Road on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Loud music blares out of cone speakers mounted on the roof and a huge maroon banner in the front of the unstable-looking van proclaims "Madras Crocodile Bank Trust." Volunteers hop out of the van and start setting up a makeshift stage in the rain. Sleepy villagers poke their heads out to see who is singing "Manmadarasa" so loudly and tunelessly. Children come racing out. "It's just a bunch of people with posters," whispers one little girl and decides to sit down to see what's happening.

Film stars Vikram and Jyothika pop out in the form of misshapen puppets and start telling them a most fascinating story full of jokes, tricks, dance and some mock fights. The puppets tell them about the threats that the Olive Ridley turtle faces when it comes to nest on Chennai's beaches and what to do if they find turtle nests or nesting turtles.

Every year, between November and March, the east coast attracts the endangered Olive Ridleys that come ashore to lay eggs. The females dig flask-shaped pits in the sand, lay their tiny eggs, and head back to the ocean. The eggs need about one and a half months to hatch into tiny turtles that have to find their way back into the sea. However, very often the mothers do not lay their eggs because harsh lights along the shore turn them away. The hapless mothers often drop their eggs into the water, which means the turtles don't even get the slim chance of survival they would have had if the eggs had been laid. On land — assuming the lights had not scared the mother turtles away — dogs and poachers often dig up the nests. A turtle egg fetches about Rs. 3 and each nest holds 70 to 100 eggs — good money for poachers. If the turtles do hatch, they have to find their way to the sea, navigating by the light of the moon reflecting off the sea's surface. But bright lights from hotels, resorts and homes along the beaches disorient the baby turtles which head away from the sea and towards the shore. By daylight, crows, gulls and birds have killed the little turtles and those that survive die under the heat of the sun. Using the posters and the puppets, the Croc Bank volunteers talk to the villagers about this, how sea turtles die in fishermen's nets, how to prevent this, and how all this affects the sea turtles.

A group of kids drags a little boy up front and tell the volunteers that he makes omelettes out of the eggs, even though they keep telling him not to. Another little boy pores over a brochure the volunteers have given him and asks them what he has to do when he finds a nesting turtle. His father listens interestedly too and says he has seen some turtles and that he will come to the Crocodile Bank if he sees any more. A little girl says she will no longer try to play with the turtles she sees on the beach.

Though only one hatchling in a thousand is believed to survive into adulthood, many of the turtles do not even get a chance to leave their eggs. The Croc Bank and the villagers are trying to help the Olive Ridleys. Small efforts, such as switching off bright lights along the beachfront for just a few months, reporting turtle and nest sightings, not disturbing nesting turtles, not using torches while walking on the beach and telling other people, can really help the turtles.

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